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Light Absorption, Reflection, and Transmission

The Electromagnetic and Visible Spectra


Visible Light and the Eye's Response
Light Absorption, Reflection, and Transmission
Color Addition
Color Subtraction
Blue Skies and Red Sunsets

We have previously learned that visible light waves consist of a continuous range of
wavelengths or frequencies. When a light wave with a single frequency strikes an
object, a number of things could happen. The light wave could be absorbed by the
object, in which case its energy is converted to heat. The light wave could be reflected
by the object. And the light wave could be transmitted by the object. Rarely however
does just a single frequency of light strike an object. While it does happen, it is more
usual that visible light of many frequencies or even all frequencies is incident towards
the surface of objects. When this occurs, objects have a tendency to selectively absorb,
reflect or transmit light certain frequencies. That is, one object might reflect green light
while absorbing all other frequencies of visible light. Another object might selectively
transmit blue light while absorbing all other frequencies of visible light. The manner in
which visible light interacts with an object is dependent upon the frequency of the light
and the nature of the atoms of the object. In this section of Lesson 2 we will discuss
how and why light of certain frequencies can be selectively absorbed, reflected or
transmitted.

Visible Light Absorption


Atoms and molecules contain electrons. It is often useful to think of these electrons as
being attached to the atoms by springs. The electrons and their attached springs have a
tendency to vibrate at specific frequencies. Similar to a tuning fork or even a musical
instrument, the electrons of atoms have a natural frequency at which they tend to
vibrate. When a light wave with that same natural frequency impinges upon an atom,
then the electrons of that atom will be set into vibrational motion. (This is merely
another example of the resonance principleintroduced in Unit 11 of The Physics
Classroom Tutorial.) If a light wave of a given frequency strikes a material with
electrons having the same vibrational frequencies, then those electrons will absorb the
energy of the light wave and transform it into vibrational motion. During its vibration,
the electrons interact with neighboring atoms in such a manner as to convert its
vibrational energy into thermal energy. Subsequently, the light wave with that given
frequency is absorbed by the object, never again to be released in the form of light. So
the selective absorption of light by a particular material occurs because the selected

frequency of the light wave matches the frequency at which electrons in the atoms of
that material vibrate. Since different atoms and molecules have different natural
frequencies of vibration, they will selectively absorb different frequencies of visible light.

Visible Light Reflection and Transmission


Reflection and transmission of light waves occur because the frequencies of the light
waves do not match the natural frequencies of vibration of the objects. When light
waves of these frequencies strike an object, the electrons in the atoms of the object
begin vibrating. But instead of vibrating in resonance at a large amplitude, the electrons
vibrate for brief periods of time with small amplitudes of vibration; then the energy is
reemitted as a light wave. If the object is transparent, then the vibrations of the
electrons are passed on to neighboring atoms through the bulk of the material and
reemitted on the opposite side of the object. Such frequencies of light waves are said to
be transmitted. If the object is opaque, then the vibrations of the electrons are not
passed from atom to atom through the bulk of the material. Rather the electrons of
atoms on the material's surface vibrate for short periods of time and then reemit the
energy as a reflected light wave. Such frequencies of light are said to bereflected.

Where Does Color Come From?


The color of the objects that we see is largely due to the way those objects interact
with light and ultimately reflect or transmit it to our eyes.
The color of an object is not actually within the object itself.
Rather, the color is in the light that shines upon it and is
ultimately reflected or transmitted to our eyes. We know that
the visible light spectrum consists of a range of frequencies,
each of which corresponds to a specific color. When visible
light strikes an object and a specific frequency becomes
absorbed, that frequency of light will never make it to our eyes. Any visible light that
strikes the object and becomes reflected or transmitted to our eyes will contribute to
the color appearance of that object. So the color is not in the object itself, but in the
light that strikes the object and ultimately reaches our eye. The only role that the object
plays is that it might contain atoms capable of selectively absorbing one or more
frequencies of the visible light that shine upon it. So if an object absorbs all of the
frequencies of visible light except for the frequency associated with green light, then
the object will appear green in the presence of ROYGBIV. And if an object absorbs all of

the frequencies of visible light except for the frequency associated with blue light, then
the object will appear blue in the presence of ROYGBIV.
Consider the two diagrams below. The diagrams depict a sheet of paper being
illuminated with white light (ROYGBIV). The papers are impregnated with a chemical
capable of absorbing one or more of the colors of white light. Such chemicals that are
capable of selectively absorbing one or more frequency of white light are known
as pigments. In Example A, the pigment in the sheet of paper is capable of absorbing
red, orange, yellow, blue, indigo and violet. In Example B, the pigment in the sheet of
paper is capable of absorbing orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. In each
case, whatever color is not absorbed is reflected.
Transparent materials are materials that allow one or more of the frequencies of visible light to
be transmitted through them; whatever color(s) is/are not transmitted by such objects, are
typically absorbed by them. The appearance of a transparent object is dependent upon what
color(s) of light is/are incident upon the object and what color(s) of light is/are transmitted
through the object.

The colors perceived of objects are the results of interactions between the various
frequencies of visible light waves and the atoms of the materials that objects are made
of. Many objects contain atoms capable of either selectively absorbing, reflecting or
transmitting one or more frequencies of light. The frequencies of light that become
transmitted or reflected to our eyes will contribute to the color that we perceive.

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